One of the most revered and recognisable freedom fighters in modern history, Nelson Mandela’s near-Messianic reputation as a revolutionary political leader is far larger than the man himself. His decades long struggle against apartheid in South Africa defies summary, but Mandela: The Official Exhibition has a go at codifying his entire legacy, squeezing the man’s biography into just a few small rooms in Waterloo’s graffiti tunnels.
The world premiere of a global travelling exhibition, this densely packed recollection of Mandela’s life is offered in chronological order, from his rural childhood in Transkei, through to the hardships of segregation and police brutality he witnessed in South Africa, the prison sentence that defined him, and his eventual release and path to the presidency in a divided country on the brink of a bloody civil war. On display are artefacts from Mandela’s life, such as the ceremonial headdress gifted to Mandela upon his release from prison by King Xolilizwe Sigcawu, as well as public signs from the apartheid era, and interviews with politicians and poets around the lasting impact of Mandela’s politics.
Unique to this London show is a room displaying examples of British anti-apartheid protest, but lost along the way is the kind of nuance and detail that would have made this exhibition more three-dimensional. Thatcher’s government was infamously lukewarm towards the ANC, and slow to support sanctions against the apartheid regime, but such inconveniently ambiguous sentiments are sandpapered away in what is ultimately a black-and-white celebration of Mandela’s world-changing achievements.